The cost of maintaining our water system

Recent low water levels in the Sugar Hollow Reservoir caused some community members to voice concern. Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s Bill Mawyer says the company’s strategy allows the reservoir to drop 19 feet below the top of the dam before transfer of water to Ragged Mountain is suspended. Photo by SkycladAerial Recent low water levels in the Sugar Hollow Reservoir caused some community members to voice concern. Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s Bill Mawyer says the company’s strategy allows the reservoir to drop 19 feet below the top of the dam before transfer of water to Ragged Mountain is suspended. Photo by SkycladAerial

Bill Mawyer often asks a question that few can answer: Do you know where your water comes from?

“Frequently in our business, people are shocked by the amount of time and money it takes to maintain a reliable water system,” says Mawyer, executive director of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, the agency charged with collecting and treating water in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Though the governance of water issues is relatively calm today, the last two decades have been contentious, with deep divisions in the community over the best way to manage the region’s water resources. Albemarle County Board of Supervisors representative Liz Palmer recalls moving to the area in 1996 and observing the Moormans River near Crozet with almost no flow, while the dam at Ragged Mountain was overflowing.

“They were basically draining the Moormans dry, diverting all the water to Ragged Mountain Reservoir,” she says, “and nobody was protecting the river.” A severe drought in 2002, the worst on record, brought the city to within 60 days of running out of water and heightened public concern about overall supply, as did last fall’s water restrictions due to drought conditions. Palmer gained a seat on the Albemarle County Service Authority board in 2006 and was dismayed by the state of the infrastructure.

“The system was horribly antiquated,” she says. “The city and county had treated the Rivanna terribly.” After beginning the slow process of solving the myriad equipment problems, the RWSA turned its attention to preparing a long-term Community Water Supply Plan—a set of interrelated projects to take care of the community’s water infrastructure needs for the next 50 years.

Jennifer Whitaker, Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s director of engineering and maintenance, calls the proposed pipeline connecting the local reservoirs fundamental, and says “we cannot do without it.”
 Photo by Eze Amos

The crux of the current system’s challenge lies in Ragged Mountain Reservoir’s dependence on an almost 100-year-old pipe to carry 4 million gallons of water per day down from Sugar Hollow to keep it filled—Ragged Mountain’s own small tributaries cannot do the job. “The 13-mile pipe runs primarily above ground in an undulating fashion, and tends to come apart because it’s not deeply bedded,” says Jennifer Whitaker, RWSA’s director of engineering and maintenance.

Instead of spending many millions to replace that pipe, the RWSA devised a plan to solve an additional set of problems at the same time by connecting the Ragged Mountain and South Fork Rivanna reservoirs with a new pipeline so that water can be stored and shared between the two. “An interconnected system will be better for supply, for storage, for treatment and for the [Moormans] river,” says Mawyer. When the new pipeline connector is finished, the old one will be taken out of service.

Streaming service

Due to geographical good fortune, our water comes from clear mountain streams that feed into rivers, none downstream from other cities or processed wastewater. Small creeks springing from the Blue Ridge foothills trickle into Sugar Hollow Reservoir, northwest of Crozet, which spills into the Moormans River. The Moormans joins the Mechums River, flowing in from the southwest and also stream-fed, where they are rechristened as the Rivanna River (South Fork). The Rivanna, along with water from a vast 259-square-mile watershed, fills the 800-million gallon Rivanna Reservoir north of Charlottesville.

The third major reservoir in the system is at Ragged Mountain Natural Area, which sits in the northwestern crook of the I-64/Route 29 Bypass interchange. Armed with a brand new 129-foot dam, Ragged Mountain Reservoir’s capacity is the largest—a 1.5-billion-gallon bowl of water filled primarily via a 13-mile pipeline from Sugar Hollow. (Crozet and Scottsville each have small independent water systems fed by their own reservoirs.)

The South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, which holds 800 million gallons of water, lies north of Charlottesville. Currently, the South Rivanna water treatment plant processes about 8 million gallons of water a day—the majority of the urban area’s clean water supply. Photo by Skyclad Aerial

To serve Charlottesville and the urban areas of Albemarle County, the South Rivanna water treatment plant processes about 8 million gallons a day—the vast majority of the urban area’s clean water supply. Ragged Mountain’s water is processed at the Observatory treatment plant on UVA’s Grounds, and then intermingled with the Rivanna water in the spidery network of underground pipes—67 miles long—that form the main water system.

In 1972, the city and county created the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority to manage those systems for the whole region. Governed by a board of directors that includes three city and three county representatives plus one appointed member, the RWSA is its own entity—neither the Board of Supervisors nor the City Council has control over it—and its budget is self-contained as an enterprise fund collected from water bill payments.

BILL BREAKDOWN: Why county and city residents pay different rates

The city and county bill their water customers at different rates and via different agencies, so your bill may vary depending on where you live. The Albemarle County Service Authority, an independent agency, sets rates, reads meters, coordinates maintenance and replacement projects and collects funds from county residents and businesses, while the Department of Utilities, part of Charlottesville city government, does those jobs for the city.

Each entity buys processed water “wholesale” from the RWSA and then adds its own costs to produce the rate it charges customers. In 2017, the RWSA’s wholesale rate was about $1.95 per thousand gallons, plus a flat debt service amount allocated to each entity based on large capital project financing (such as treatment plant upgrades). From there, the city and county diverge in how they charge for usage.

The county uses a four-tier system in which its monthly rate per thousand gallons goes up sharply after 3,000 gallons of use, and again after 6,000 and 9,000 gallons, to encourage conservation. “The lowest tier is basically at cost,” says ACSA Director Gary O’Connell. “If you want to irrigate your lawn, and you’re willing to pay quite a bit more for it, you can.” For a county resident in 2017, an average use of 3,500 gallons per month would cost about $24.

The city, by contrast, uses a seasonal approach instead of tiers, charging users about 30% more in the summer months than in the winter, again with an eye toward conservation. For the 3,500 gallons example using an average annual rate for 2017, a city user would pay about $29.50 per month. The city’s rates are higher than the county’s due to increased maintenance expense, particularly the recent capital costs of replacing aging or leaky pipeline under city streets, some of which is more than 100 years old. As well, a 1981 agreement allows UVA, an entity that represents about 30 percent of the city’s customer base, to be charged for water use at roughly half the rate paid by the rest of city users.

The RWSA handles the “wholesale” side of the water business, maintaining infrastructure such as reservoirs, dams and pumping stations, and providing drinking water treatment at five plants spread throughout the county. The RWSA has two main customers—the Albemarle County Service Authority and the City of Charlottesville’s water utility department—and each of these manages the “retail” side, setting rates, checking meters and selling water to residential and commercial water users.

The water system has come a long way from its earliest days. “In the 1800s, Charlottesville’s only water supply was a well pump in the location where today’s Sacagawea statue sits at the intersection of Fifth and Main streets,” says RWSA’s Whitaker. More recently, rapid population growth has led to growing pains that culminated in the water wars of the late 2000s, and to new ways of looking at our future water supply.

Muddy waters

When unveiled in 2006, the Water Supply Plan proposed a new taller dam at Ragged Mountain Reservoir to store more water, and a nine-mile pipeline along Charlottesville’s west side to connect the reservoirs. The plan immediately sparked a pitched battle between community groups, city and county leaders and the water agencies. A conservationist group called Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, co-founded by Dede Smith, who would later be elected to Charlottesville City Council, raised questions about the necessity, expense and environmental impact of a new Ragged Mountain Dam.

Two more years of studies, presentations and public meetings addressed alternatives to the dam such as dredging the Rivanna Reservoir to make it deeper (which was rejected by the RWSA as insufficient and too expensive), as well as mitigation plans to replace the trees and woodland habitats that would be flooded by the expansion. The parties finally signed off on the Water Supply Plan in 2012, and construction on the dam was completed in 2014.

Originally a proponent of dredging, Smith’s current focus is on “freeing the Rivanna River” now that the dam has been built. “There is an opportunity here to realize the true benefit of the plan by removing the South Fork dam and relying on the Ragged Mountain dam alone to solve our water problems.”

In addition to conflicting views on the dam, the city and county also failed to see eye to eye on the need for an expensive new pipeline. During the plan’s negotiation from 2007-09, city representatives took the position that the pipeline was not a priority because Charlottesville wasn’t going to grow and thus didn’t need more water.

Gary O’Connell, now executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority, was serving as Charlottesville’s city manger during negotiations between the city and county in 2007-09 to build a pipeline connecting the Ragged Mountain and South Fork reservoirs. He calls the city representatives who said Charlottesville wasn’t going to grow and thus didn’t need access to more water “short-sighted.” Photo by Eze Amos

Gary O’Connell, current ACSA executive director, was serving as Charlottesville city manager at the time and thought the city was being short-sighted. “All you have to do is drive up West Main or down Fifth Street and you’ll see [the idea of no growth] was crazy,” he says.

But county officials felt so strongly that both the dam and pipeline were needed for the community’s growth that they agreed that the county would shoulder the bulk of the projects’ costs—85 percent of the Ragged Mountain Dam’s $35 million, and 80 percent of the pipeline’s projected $100 million. “Without that agreement, the whole thing would have fallen apart,” says O’Connell.

Smith thinks the city made the right decision. “I don’t believe the pipeline will ever be built,” she says, “because the plan was premised on a water demand of 14 million gallons per day (MGD), and we have been stuck at less than 10 MGD for more than 15 years.”

To cover future eventualities, the Water Supply Plan contains a caveat: If the city should eventually use more than its 20 percent share of the new water capacity generated by the dam, it must repay its share of the cost of both projects to the county in an annual “true-up” process, which could run to the millions of dollars owed. To ensure accuracy, the county has installed meters in pipes at points all along the city/county boundary lines, to measure exactly how much water the city is using each year.

Pipe dream

The road to complete the next phase of the water plan is likely to be a long one, says Palmer, now a RWSA Board member. “Water will have to be on the city’s agenda again very soon, because we have to make a decision about where we place the pipe,” she says.

“The pipe” will be a 3-foot-wide ductile iron pipeline that requires a 20-foot easement to bury. Water-related construction projects are rarely low-cost affairs, often requiring deep tunnels or excavation through solid rock, navigating past roads and railroad tracks and around existing development. Though the pipeline’s projected southern wedge runs through mostly UVA-owned land around Ednam Forest and Farmington, the path becomes more congested as it has to skirt residential areas near Barracks Road and Albemarle High School and commercial tracts near Lowe’s and Sam’s Club. After the pipe is installed, says Mawyer, “we restore the land and replant it, and it’s generally invisible once it’s done.”

With a timeline that estimates three to four years to acquire the necessary easements along the pipeline’s nine-mile route and eight or more years to design and build it, along with managing various financing and environmental issues along the way, it’s a long-term project with a hefty price tag.

“The misnomer is that the pipeline is just a pipeline,” says Whitaker. “It’s also pump stations and intakes and pretreatment and treatment plants, and all of those pieces have to be built simultaneously. But the new pipeline is fundamental to the community meeting its long-term water needs and we cannot do that without it. The only question is when.”

The RWSA Board met in January and decided that beginning the full-scale pipeline project immediately would mean unwieldy spikes in staffing needs and debt financing, so they are currently looking at a time frame that would begin construction in 2027, but could shift that earlier as other items on their to-do list are completed.

Go with the flow

After last fall’s city and county water restrictions were enacted in response to drought conditions, many in the community wondered why the much-touted Ragged Mountain Dam had not prevented the need for restrictions. The answer is that the Water Supply Plan is only partly complete—the proposed pipeline is the linchpin to a full circuit that will assure a reliable water supply in the future.

Right now, low water levels in the Rivanna Reservoir, such as the September/October 2017 drop to 42 percent of capacity, mean that the whole system has to rely on the 64-year-old Observatory water treatment plant, which can’t fully sustain the urban area by itself. “It’s built to treat up to 7 million gallons per day, but practically it can only treat 2 or 3 million, and it really needs to be more like 10,” says the ACSA’s O’Connell. O’Connnell says increasing the plant is the next short-term project on the horizon, and that it can be completed in the next three or four years.

Bill Mawyer, a North Garden native, spent 15 years as assistant director of Henrico County’s public utility operations before taking the helm at the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority in November 2016. Photo by Eze Amos

And once the pipeline is built, explains the RWSA’s Mawyer, we’ll have a “circular circuit.” “If the Rivanna Reservoir gets so low that the pumping station there can’t function properly [as happened last fall], then we can switch it over and bring water up from Ragged Mountain Reservoir, where we have a huge amount of storage,” he says. “And when Rivanna is overflowing, we can store that extra water at Ragged Mountain.” The two sources will be connected, providing needed redundancy and reliability in the system.

Acquisition of the right of way easements along the new pipeline’s route is already underway, as are improvements to both the Rivanna and Observatory water treatment plants. Also ongoing is construction of an additional water line to connect the southern Avon area to Pantops, to ensure the eastern-most part of the county is in the loop. Next up will be projects to replace older Ragged Mountain water lines coming into the city, and pumps to increase their capacity and reliability and to be ready for the core pipeline project.

Sea change

The past two decades have also ushered in a keen awareness of environmental issues that water management policies can address. “In the early 2000s, in part because of the drought, the community started looking at meeting the ecological needs of rivers,” says Whitaker, “to make sure we maintain environmental health as well as human health.”

That new perspective meant a change in water release policies, particularly for the Moormans River, which is now allowed to flow freely downstream from Sugar Hollow Reservoir with limits on how much is fed through the older Ragged Mountain pipeline for storage. Similarly, the Rivanna Reservoir, when not spilling over the top, releases water to replicate what its feeder streams are contributing from the watershed, to better preserve aquatic life downstream.

Palmer wonders about the expectations of the public regarding the most visible measures of the water supply. “Reservoirs are meant to be drawn down, but what is the public’s tolerance for going into water conservation on a regular basis and watching levels go down?” she says. “That’s the way they’re supposed to work, but it makes people nervous.”

Marlene Condon, Crozet nature writer and photographer, recently sounded the alarm about reservoir levels in Sugar Hollow. “The streams in my area were drying up by last summer,” she says, “and the water authority should insist that people start conserving sooner during times of drought. When reservoir levels fall it means more is going out than coming in, and they should only be transferring water to Ragged Mountain if it is absolutely necessary.” The RWSA’s current water supply strategy allows the Sugar Hollow reservoir level to drop to 19 feet below the top of the dam before suspending the transfer.

CLEANUP CREW: Filtered water is constantly monitored for contaminants

Despite a flash fad in California and Maine where some are paying $15 for a gallon of completely untreated stream water for its supposed health benefits, water supply professionals recommend strongly against drinking raw water. “Crazy,” says Dave Tungate, the RWSA’s water manager, who goes on to list the ways in which water is processed to make it clean for drinking.

The first step is to remove the particulate—dirt and organic matter like leaves, wood and bugs. Raw water collected in reservoirs is piped to a treatment plant, where a coagulant is added to make the particles stick together (in a process called flocculation) and settle to the bottom of sedimentation tanks. At this point the water is visibly clearer, but “it’s not the stuff you can see that can hurt you,” says Tungate. “It’s the stuff you can’t see.”

Next, the water is treated and filtered for micro-contaminants such as giardia and cryptosporidium, microscopic parasites from animal activity in the river that can cause sickness in humans and their pets. New “granular activated carbon” filtration systems have been installed at every treatment facility in the county and are set to go online this spring. These systems filter out even more organic material in the water so that no acid byproducts are released during the final chlorination step.

The last phase balances the pH of the water to keep it neutral, disinfects it with chlorine, mixes in a corrosion inhibitor to keep pipe metals from leaching into the water and adds fluoride. “Water is a biological and chemical system and we are constantly gauging what’s coming in, and standardizing what’s going out,” says Jennifer Whitaker, the RWSA’s director of engineering and maintenance.

Toward that end, the filtered water is constantly monitored using an online turbidimeter for any kind of suspended matter from clay or silt particles to viruses and bacteria, and lab samples are tested for bacteria, algae, metals such as lead and nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer), as well as for residual byproducts from the treatment process itself. Charlottesville/Albemarle water meets or exceeds all federal and state standards for water quality.

Occasionally, city residents may notice their water taking on a milky or cloudy aspect, but the cause is usually benign. “The most likely cause of cloudy water would be dissolved air in the water,” says Tungate, which occurs more often when cold water from outside is piped into a warm house. Tiny microbubbles form as the oxygen tries to escape, and will dissipate after a minute or so of sitting still.

Gary O’Connell, whose office walls are covered with framed images of brook trout and fly-fishing lures, agrees with the need for greater public understanding. “I’ve fished a lot in the upper Moormans above Sugar Hollow and there were years where that part was dried up,” he says. “The natural flows come and go, so to think that a reservoir is going to be the same level year-round is not realistic.” Still, he and the other city and county water managers are focused on how to plan for future environmental uncertainty.

“There’s a lot of research being done on adapting to climate change for water utilities,” he says. “We’re seeing the peaks and seasonal variation, dry periods and extreme rain, and we know that has to be factored in to our projections. We’ll be doing a big study in 2020 to look at long-term supply and I think that climate change will have to be a factor in there.”

Regarding the pipeline project, Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Mallek is resolute. “As representatives, we have to make sure that we stick to our convictions and do not shy away from agreements and plans we already have, because that will create chaos,” she says. “Everything takes longer than you think it will, so let’s get started. To people who cringe because we have to build two pump stations—well, so what? You put solar power on them and you go to town.”

For her part, Whitaker, who joined the RWSA in 2003, says, “this is a fantastic time, from an engineering perspective, to be in this organization. We’ve taken parts of this system that were very broken, from a capacity, pollution and safety standpoint, and fixed them, and now we’re designing for the future. Watching this unfold is very rewarding; we get to see the execution of the Water Supply Plan actually starting to happen.”

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